In Disney's new video game, “Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two,” melody and lyrics move the plot points and narratives. (Disney Interactive)Link
The Walt Disney Co. has a new challenge for video gamers. Are they ready to whistle while they play?
“Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two,” which will be released Sunday, is an animated musical, and one at its most traditional at that. Think “Pinocchio,” not “Tangled.” Curiously, though, it’s also the first of its kind.
“Every time I tell people it’s a musical their eyes get wide,” says writer-developer Warren Spector. “It’s like a dog being shown a magic trick.”
The musical is a genre that’s now rare in film and television, let alone in the still relatively new frontierland of video games. Yet “Epic Mickey 2,” which will coincide with the launch of Nintendo’s new Wii U system on Sunday, could possibly revive the idea of the musical for a new generation while also providing a bump for Disney in the world of gaming.
The central conceit of “Epic Mickey2” is still the same as its predecessor. The player — in the role of Mickey — has a paintbrush and paint thinner. The tools can be used to create a world of color or subtract from it. It’s just now there’s a new palette: songs.
Plot points and narratives here are delivered to the player via melody and lyrics. And no, it’s not a pastiche of generic guitar riffs or bad synthesized pop.
Emmy-winning composer Jim Dooley (“Pushing Daisies,” “The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning”) created 90 minutes of original music for the game while lyricist Mike Himelstein drew inspiration from such old-school corners as the Broadway classic “The Music Man.” The songs are featured in cinematic sequences, so for the player to strategize and pick up clues, he must listen closely to a dozen or so numbers sung by the villain, Mad Doctor.
“This is a continuation of something Disney has always been doing,” Dooley says. “They were always putting the musical into new places.”
But the question is, are gamers ready for Disney’s newest conquest? Not surprisingly, Spector says yes, but the concept itself has been a hard sell. “There were two responses, and they were usually from the same person,” says Spector, 57, of pitching the sequel to his 2010 hit. “The first: ‘Of course, it’s Disney. There’s always songs.’ Then they would say, ‘But wait, gamers aren’t going to buy a game with songs in it.’ I think that’s nonsense.”
If a success, “Epic Mickey 2” may help along a musical revival. Disney’s 2013 slate includes “Frozen,” an animated film scheduled to feature music from Robert Lopez (“Book of Mormon”) and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez (“Winnie the Pooh”).
Spector says he was sold on the idea after surveying the pop landscape.”I looked around and saw the popularity of ‘Glee’ and ‘Smash’ — and I tried to get tickets for ‘The Book of Mormon’ and failed, and it seemed like the time was right,” he says.
Though it dates to only 2010, the “Epic Mickey” brand tinkered with tradition from its inception as a Wii-only title (its sequel is available for all major consoles). The debut game was an instant success estimated to have sold about 1.3 million copies in its first four weeks of release, making it Disney’s fastest-selling console game. It also costarred the relatively unknown early Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Furthermore, it took Mickey Mouse out of his comfort zone by giving the mischievously upbeat critter an edgier, action-driven setting. The world in the game wasn’t the tourist-friendly landscape of the Magic Kingdom but Wasteland, an alternative reality universe populated with forgotten, bitter toons. Wasteland returns in the sequel but with more showbiz pizazz.
“Epic Mickey 2” takes music risks that many of Disney’s other recent releases haven’t. The company’s animated feature, the video game-inspired “Wreck-It Ralph,” is free of any Broadway breakdowns. Last year’s “The Muppets” had its share of silly symphonies, but the emphasis was on recognizable pop songs rather than originals, and the heroine of 2010’s “Tangled” was an acoustic guitar-wielding princess who was more Taylor Swift than Ariel.
Audiences today, says “Wreck-It Ralph” composer Henry Jackman, are attuned to expect an iTunes-like collage of sounds. “If you look at music history in general, you can look at an era and say this is a baroque period, or this is a classical period, or this is a German romantic period,” he says. “Now more than ever there is more aesthetic variation.”
Spector is up for the experiment. He did, after all, design role-playing games for “Dungeons & Dragons” publisher TSR early in his career. He is best known for games such as “Deus Ex” and “Thief: Deadly Shadows,” titles that emphasize player choice amid an openly complex narrative.
In “Epic Mickey 2,” a gamer’s play style will essentially turn the user into “the conductor of the orchestra.” Throughout most of the game, three audio tracks run concurrently, with certain instrumentation dropping in or out depending on how much or how little Mickey is used to paint.
“A game should not be about me telling you my story,” says Spector of his design philosophy. “I’ve spent my entire life trying to re-create the feeling I had the first time I played ‘Dungeons & Dragons.’”
These days, however, Spector is aiming for a wider audience. Most companies, he notes, design for “teenage boys or twentysomething young men” and do so to the exclusion of everyone else. He’s ready for a new adventure.
“I’m not the ‘Hannah Montana’ audience or the ‘Wizards of Waverly Place’ audience, but the statement you hear over and over again is they’re making entertainment for families,” he says. “That opens up doors that other game companies aren’t willing to walk through.”
— Todd Martens
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